Option 3: The Arthurian Tradition of King Arthur & The Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table

Dr Juliana Dresvina


The Medieval Interdisciplinary Seminar focuses on Arthurian Legend, particularly as represented in the English literature of the Middle Ages. Our exploration of English Arthurian tradition will take us far back into the early medieval period and will enable us to explore how the legend of Arthur has been recast and reinvented in a range of artistic forms over the centuries, from chronicle to romance, poetry and prose, to the visual arts and modern-day cinema.

Study will centre on the earliest sources of the Arthurian legend in chronicle tradition, development of the legend into romance in the 12th-15th centuries and its connections with chivalric and courtly culture, later resurgence of the legend in Victorian culture, and reception of the legend in different modern media.

Class discussions will centre upon a group of key medieval Arthurian works, all of which are available as easily-accessible translations. These include Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Layamon’s Brut, Chretien de Troyes’s The Knight of the Cart, the fourteenth-century masterpieces Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as well as the closing sections of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.

We will also look at modern Arthurian adaptations, in particular the paintings of the pre-Raphaelite artists and recent Arthurian films such as First Knight, King Arthur, the parody Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the BBC’s Wife of Bath’s Tale set in our days.

Indicative Interdisciplinary Seminar Programme
Week 1 : An Arthurian Itinerary

The introductory seminar traces the origins of Arthurian legend from the last days of Roman Britain to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s seminal twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain. Arthurian legend is linked with numerous localities in England and Wales (including Oxford) and we explore how these connections were vital in the formation and dissemination of today’s legends. The earliest Arthurian material hails from Wales while other legends of Arthur’s birth and parentage unfold in Tintagel in Cornwall; the story of Arthur and the Holy Grail takes us to the sacred site of Glastonbury; a legend of Lancelot and Guinevere to Nottingham Castle; and Arthurian connections will also be traced with London, Cheshire and Oxfordshire (including the site of Oxford Castle, a stone’s throw from St Peter’s College).

• Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of the Kings of Britain (any edition; please pay particular attention to parts 6 to 7 [books VIII:1 – XI:2])
• Richard Barber, King Arthur: Hero and Legend (various editions; also useful for the rest of the course).

Week 2 : The chronicle and romance traditions

We will explore how the medieval Arthurian tradition developed from its chronicle origins as poets began to use the legends as the subject matter of medieval romance. A study of twelfth and thirteenth century adaptations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain by Wace and Layamon will help us to observe how the legends made the transition from historical to artistic treatments of The Matter of Britain. We also consider the influence of the emergent cult of fin amor or ‘courtly love’ on the Arthurian tradition, particularly in the story of Lancelot and his adulterous love for Queen Guinevere.

• Arthurian section of Brut by Layamon (also spelled La3amon and Lawman), lines 6382-14297 in various editions (e.g. Wace and Lawman: The Life of King Arthur, trans. by Judith Weiss and Rosamund Allen, Everyman, 1997, or The Arthurian Section of Layamon’s Brut, ed. W.R.J Barron and S.C. Weinberg, Exeter, 2001)
• Chretien de Troyes, The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot), in Arthurian Romances, translated William W. Kibler & Carleton Carroll (Penguin)
• Additional reading: Marie de France, Lanval in The Lais of Marie de France (various editions, e.g. trans. Glyn S. Burgess & Keith Busby (Penguin), or in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, pp. 142-155)

Week 3 : Legends of Arthur in the late 14th century

In this third week we will look in detail at two masterpieces of late-medieval English poetry: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, various translations (best use either the verse on by Marie Boroff, found in separate Norton editions and in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, pp. 162-213, or the prose translation by W. R. J. Barron)
• ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale’, in Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (numerous editions & translations; also in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, pp. 257-284)

Week 4 : Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur

We look at the final two books of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’ Arthur, the first work to relate the entire Arthurian legend in English, Malory’s treatment of the by-then established Arthurian canon and the way the legend of the rise and fall of the Round Table fellowship relates to the historical context of the Wars of the Roses.

Reading: Thomas Malory Le Morte D’Arthur, various editions and translations (from The Poisoned Apple to the end)
Week 5 : Arthurian Adaptations

We explore later adaptations of Arthurian legend in visual arts and, using our knowledge of the medieval tradition, how later adapters and artists perpetuate certain key themes and motifs from the legends, discarding others. We look at nineteenth-century medievalist revival with a flourishing of Arthurian themes in magnificent visual arts of this period, particularly the vivid work of Pre-Raphaelite painters, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, with close Oxford connections. Finally, we consider recent screen adaptations of Arthurian legends on silver screen.

• The Wife of Bath’s Tale from BBC Modern Re-Telling of The Canterbury Tales (2004)
• Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
• First Knight (1995)
• King Arthur (2004)


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St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College, University of Oxford